History of the Olympic Games

1896 Olympics

Site: Athens, Greece
Dates: April 6-15
Nations: 13
Total Athletes: 311
Sports: 9

A young French nobleman Baron Pierre de Coubertin is attributed to the revival of the ancient Olympic Games in its modern form and was key to the foundation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at a Paris conference in 1894. The Greeks, who were the authors of the primitive games, were quick to offer a venue for the modern games, Athens, Greece. It would be the first Olympic Games in 1,503 years since the 293rd and final edition of the original Olympic era was held in 393 A.D.

Panathenian Stadium
A photograph of the interior of the Panathenian Stadium before the start of the 1896 Olympic Games. (Courtesy of: Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive)
Coubertin's original idea was to revive the Games in 1900 in Paris, France. In a presentation made to a world athletics congress in 1894, 78 delegates from some 34 countries were so enthralled with the renewal of the Games, they decided they did not want to wait until the turn of the century and secondly, they felt the Olympics should return to where it ended, Athens, Greece.

While other countries had attempted to stage their own version of the Olympick Games in previous years, recognition of the events were non- existent since it catered to a segregated portion of the world population. The Greeks hosted variations of the games as well, populated primarily of their own people, with minimal credibility. The 1896 affair, which attracted some 311 athletes from 13 nations, garnered world-wide recognition since individual athletes were selected on a national basis and was a symbolism for global unity among the world of nation states.

The spotlight of the games was the venue of the track and field events. It was hosted in the classical Panathenaic stadium, which had been reconstructed in spectacular marble fashion for the Games, thanks in large part to the generosity of philanthropist Georgios Averoff. So successful were the games that more than two-thirds of the population of Athens attended the events. The success of the games was not lost on the Greeks, who made a valiant effort to secure the Games permanently for Greece. However, the power of Coubertin, the president of the IOC, and the international principles had been established once and for all.

As for the Olympics themselves, there were no events at all for women. The swimming meets were held in the Bay of Zea, where temperatures hovered over 55 degrees. The prominent sports at these Olympics were track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting and wrestling.

Not surprisingly, the Greeks dominated the competitions, winning 47 medals, well ahead of the 19 secured by the United States, 15 by Germany and 11 from France.

The U.S. did win 11 gold medals, compared to the 10 won by the Greeks. The U.S. also dominated in track fan field, winning nine of 12 events.

One key event to the Games was the marathon, suggested by French historian Michael Breal, who knew of the legend of Greek hero Pheidippides. Pheidippides was sent to Athens in 449 B.C. to deliver the news of victory by the Grecian army over the Persians in the Battle of Marathon. As legend would have it, upon his arrival, Pheidippides yelled out "Rejoice, we conquer!" and dropped dead.

Ironically, the marathon was won by a Greecian postal messanger Spiridon Louis in a time of two hours in 58 minutes. He was embraced by King George, who rewarded him with an antique vase, a golden cup, a laurel wreath, and a horse and cart.

On April, 6, 1896, American James Connolly of Suffolk, Massachusetts had the distinction of being the first Olympic Champion since Barasdates of Armenia in boxing in AD 369 with a triple jump of 44 feet, 11 ? inches (13.71 m). Connolly very nearly missed the event, which was scheduled on the first day of the Games. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of the American delegation, the Greeks were still using the Greek Orthodox Calendar in 1896, meaning their arrival on March 25, was really April 5, one day prior to his event.

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